Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The word is as powerful as the sword...

Sometimes, literature can make you stop and stare at the page, a 'whoosh' of excitement filling your ears, thrill and goosebumps all over the place, a sudden inability to breathe, and the words 'Oh. My. God.' running through your head. Repeatedly.

Ever had that feeling? I have. Multiple times.

When this occurs, the cause is mostly to do with plot. It is either an incredible twist, or something that suddenly alters the tone of the work, something that makes you think 'things will never be the same again', or an idea that is so amazing that you remain shell-shocked, and need a few deep breaths to get back to normal.

And now, a few example of scenes that cause me to react exactly this way. Please skip what you haven't read if you don't want to be spoiled.

I want to start with a passage from the last chapter of The Subtle Knife, the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Mrs. Coulter is, to put it mildly, interrogating the witch Lena Feldt as to the the whereabouts of her daughter Lyra. Here's the passage:

'"And now tell me this. You witches know something about the child Lyra. I nearly learned it from one of your sisters, but she died before I could complete the torture. Well, there is no one to save you now. Tell me the truth about my daughter."
Lena Feldt gasped: "She will be the mother - she will be life - mother - she will disobey - she will -"
"Name her! You are saying everything but the most important thing! Name her!" cried Mrs. Coulter.
"Eve! Mother of all! Eve, again! Mother Eve!" stammered Lena Feldt, sobbing.
"Ah," said Mrs. Coulter.
And she breathed a great sigh, as if the purpose of her life was clear to her at last.'

I remember reading that page three more times, open-mouthed. The concept of Lyra as Eve, the importance of naming her, Mrs. Coulter sighing... Masterful.

The next scene is from Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I will spare you the fangirl's gushing over Hardy; my friends are the usual audience to that. But please allow me to rave over this particular scene: it is chapter 56, from 'Fulfilment', and the householder Mrs. Brooks observes a red stain on the ceiling getting gradually larger. It's blood, as she soon understands. As we understand, Tess has murdered Alec Stoke-D'Urberville. He appears to be bleeding on the carpet. Chilling.

In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, all semblance of security is snatched away in one little line. Winston and Julia are lying in bed, after having had sex for the umpteenth time (go them! At least they get some). Winston is brooding about how there might yet be hope for the future generations. 'You were the dead; theirs was the future,' he thinks. Poor Winston!

'"We are the dead," he said.
"We are the dead," echoed Julia dutifully.
"You are the dead," said an iron voice behind them.

Oops. Busted. And, oh, shit.

Wimpy, whinging Jonathan Harker witnesses this scene in Count Dracula's castle.

'[...] I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just like a lizard moves along a wall.
What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me; I am in fear - awful fear - and there is no escape for me; I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of...'

Wow. Guess what, Jonathan? We are in awful fear too. [Incidentally, this is just about the only scene that looked good in the movie adaptation of Dracula. The rest was pretty much ruined by Keanu Reeves trying to act.]

The next scene is, believe it or not, from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, my second-favourite HP book after Goblet of Fire. Harry follows the disembodied voice of the basilisk, and is led to the petrified form of Mrs. Norris, and the creepy, cryptic message on the wall: 'THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED. ENEMIES OF THE HEIR, BEWARE.' It's such an incredibly tense moment, so eerie and mysterious. What's the Chamber of Secrets? Who's the heir? Who are its enemies? I'm still amazed at how chilling two short sentences can be.

And last but most definitely not least, this paragraph from Thackeray's Vanity Fair, chapter 32, 'In which Jos takes Flight, and the War is brought to a Close':

'No more firing was heard at Brussels - the pursuit rolled miles away. Darkness came down on the field and city; and Amelia was praying for George, who was lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart.'

This is the most effective chapter ending I have ever come across. I don't think I was able to turn the page for a long time after reading that.

The list is officially over. But isn't it amazing how words printed on a piece of paper can make your blood go cold?

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Of adorable villains

I dedicate today's post to Monsieur Homais, self-proclaimed ruler of Yonville, king of the jungle, chauvinist extraordinaire, and funniest villain ever.

Many people hate Homais. It's not hard to see why. He absolutely rules over Yonville. He is so annoyingly pompous and intrusive that sometimes, you just want to smack him. He gets his much coveted Legion of Honour (and has sex with his wife) while the poor heroine dies a painful death. He destroys his enemies mercilessly. He is, in short, a royal prick that never, ever gets caught.

But what would Madame Bovary be without Homais?

Repetitive and uninteresting drivel? Maybe not, but it would certainly lose most of the humour that provides essential comic relief in a human tragedy that is, on occasion, awfully depressing.

Scenario: Charles Bovary decides to operate on Hippolyte's club-foot. Considering Charles' incompetence, the operation predictably goes wrong. Hippolyte's leg gets infected, and erupts with vividly described pus. Emma is distraught at her husband's sheer mediocrity. Hippolyte is dying. Homais rushes to the scene and says: 'What can have happened to our fascinating taliped?'

Fascinating taliped? How can you read that and keep a straight face? A pat on the back to you, Monsieur Homais, for being just so inappropriately hilarious.

Of the caricatures that populate Yonville, Homais is perhaps the most significant. As a declaredly progressive member of society, he is really no different than the next bourgeois; narrow-minded, mean-spirited, materialist to the end, he epitomizes the very spirit that Emma battles against for so long. Emma, who wants to escape the confines of her provincial existence, is balanced by Homais the pharmacist, who thrives on that existence. He wins, in the end, and we hate him for it.

Or at least we're supposed to hate him for it. Personally, I love him. Besides, I'd rather be Homais and get a nice Legion of Honour than be Emma, and die of arsenic poisoning. Wouldn't you?


Sunday, January 29, 2006

Of obsessive gaming

Last week, I accidentally cancelled all my minesweeper records. Being as I am completely obsessed with minesweeper, that was nothing short of tragedy for me. Luckily, I'd screencapped my latest expert record, otherwise I would have probably ended up tearing my hair out. No, seriously.

I'm particularly proud of this record, as it went from 99 to 95 to 92 in around a week. The whole screencapping was done just to convince Panacea, who refused to believe I'd managed to beat JK Rowling. I was briefly hyper about my new amazing record, but then I saw this site, and was traumatised. Apparently, I suck. Sniff.

Oh well. I am only seventeen after all. I know I'll make it eventually!

In case you're interested, my beginners record is five seconds, and my intermediate is thirty-one. Incidentally, that particular intermediate record was what caused me to delete my scores. I was so excited that I accidentally clicked the 'cancel all scores' tab. I know, I still can't believe it either.

Should I manage to improve my times, you will be informed.
Now I'm off to do my maths homework.

PS: If you have no idea what minesweeper is, I suggest you give it a go (but read the instructions first). It's excellent brain training.


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Kings and Queens of pop

For post number three, I thought I'd write an album review. The album in question is ABBA Gold, a Christmas gift from Panacea, who got sick of listening to my personal rendition of Dancing Queen over and over again.
So here goes.

Overall, this is a great album. Being a greatest hits compilation, it's devoid of below par filler that usually accompanies all albums. Consequently, you'll find you won't have to skip anything, or cringe at a particularly unoriginal tune. The only song that I can think of that's missing is Honey Honey, but that's a small loss compared to what you can find here.

'Dancing Queen', first song on the album, is amazing. For some reason, it makes me want to cry every time I listen to it (although in the interests of personal dignity, I usually refrain from doing so). Oh, and it starts with the chorus, which is unusual and quite nice. In any case, the vocals sound unbelievably good, almost sad (which I guess is why they make me want to cry).
Really, the perfect-pop-song-that-everybody-knows status for 'Dancing Queen' is not accidental.

Then we have 'Knowing Me, Knowing You', which has a lovely 'a-haaa' every minute or so. The lyrics are (surprisingly) interesting, and I could probably relate if I'd ever been in a serious relationship (or any at all, for that matter. Alas, I am a lonely heart).

'Take a Chance on Me' is one of those cool ABBA songs where the two men in the group (Bjorn and Benny, that is) make a huge contribution to the singing with a relentless 'take a chance, take a chance' that accompanies the first thirty or so seconds of the song. Their voices almost sound like maracas, which is a strange comparison to make, I guess.

'Mamma Mia' - uber-famous. The title is an Italian exclamation, and even I, single-extraordinaire, can relate. How many times have we thought 'my, my, how can I resist you?' My obsession with Mike is a perfect example. But that's for another day.

This track is followed by my personal favourite, 'Lay All Your Love on Me' - you can dance to this, you can brood to it, you can sing to it, you can do just about anything to it. The tune is so catchy it's almost painful, the drums (even though I'm not sure they're real drums) provide a great background to the beautiful, almost churchlike vocals. The lyrics are great - obsessing over a new relationship is universal, and what is more, they seem to have managed to make everything rhyme, so that it sounds even better. In conclusion, this is one good song.

'Super Trouper' is also good. I especially like the 'supah-pah, troupah-pah' bits sung by the men. The music is pleasant enough, soothing I think best describes it. This is followed by 'I Have a Dream', which seems to be the odd one out, really, as it lacks the exceedingly catchy tunes of the other songs. However, once you listen to it enough times (and believe me, I have), the rousing lyrics, and Frida's beautiful voice, become addictive.

'The Winner Takes It All' is just depressing. Unfortunately, it's also true. The winner really does take it all. I guess the only way to go is to be the winner. The saddest verses?

'But tell me does she kiss
Like I used to kiss you?
Does it feel the same
When she calls your name?'
'Money, Money, Money' is another of my favourites. The tune at the beginning is almost playful, as is the rest of the song, which, predictably, is about money. I think they've used cymbals somewhere in there, but I can't quite tell. Really, I'm just pretending here.

The opening of 'SOS' sets the tone for the rest of the track. This is one depressing song. But, as ABBA always do, there is a chorus that, music-wise, is slightly more light-hearted. Which is definitely of the good. And then comes another of my favourites: 'Chiquitita'. The first time you listen to this, you're like 'o-kaay'. It really doesn't stick in your head, and neither does it seem to have a recognisable tune. The chorus starts more than a minute and a half into it. It's a slow song, and it's also a long song. But, just like 'I Have a Dream', it improves with successive listenings.

There are no words to describe 'Fernando'. It's just, wow. One thing though - the first Heidi-like minute or so could have been a little shorter. But i guess that sets the atmosphere. 'Voulez-Vous' is quite good, although not as remarkable as some other tracks. It is really the ultimate pop song, and very eighties, I think (it was released in 1979). The strange beat of the chorus is unusual, and Agnetha and Frida singing together is very nice.

'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!' has a cheesy title, but it's a great pop song. Unless you live in a ditch, you must've heard Madonna's new song, 'Hung Up'. Well, she took that painfully catchy tune from this song. ABBA are immortal!

'Does Your Mother Know' is Panacea's favourite, and I quite like it too. It's sung by Bjorn, which is unusual, but it fits the lyrics. The rhyming is a little cheesy on occasion (eg. I can dance with you honey, if you think it's funny...), but overall it's a great song. The guitar (I think it's a guitar) fits really well, considering how 'pop' this song is.

I don't particularly like 'One of Us'. I only like the chorus, but really, I've heard better. The following song also doesn't shine. 'The Name of the Game' is too...I don't know, 'slow' might be the word I'm looking for, but that doesn't necessarily mean bad.

Luckily, the slight boredom of these two tracks is more than made up for by yet another of my favourites: 'Thank You For the Music'. This is probably, after 'Dancing Queen', one of ABBA's best known songs. I simply adore it. I can often be heard singing it, which rather annoys Panacea, but that's just because she's tone deaf, and envies my beautiful voice.

And, last but not least, 'Waterloo'. It's one of the really famous ABBA songs, and rightly so, as it's really hard to forget once you listen to it. It's a loud song, a short song, and the piano sounds great. Oh, and the beautiful line: 'The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.' For a history nerd like me, finding this in a pop song is just too cool.

And the album thus ends. Unless you're a hardcore ABBA fan, ABBA Gold is really quite enough for your ABBA cravings. Their best songs are all in there, and even the liner notes are cool (I must be the only person in the world who reads those).


Friday, January 27, 2006

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...

It's been snowing for two days straight now, and the whole city is a big pile of brown slush. If you're wondering why on earth this is such a big deal, well, you obviously don't live in Milan. Apparently, there hasn't been this much snow since 1985 (but I wouldn't know, as I was still in gamete form at that time), and, Italians being the world's greatest drama queens, this takes the top spot in the news, above Palestinian election results and kidnapped journalists.
Ignore my seemingly indifferent attitude. I am as over-excited as a drunk house-elf. Snow rules, and I never see any.
School decided they'd let us out at 12:30, but everyone left an hour earlier except me, the uber-nerd who didn't want to miss Italian. When that was over, I made my way home through piles of dirty snow, jeans sopping by the time I got to the metro. Still, I had something to look forward to. Plans were made for a snowball fight at Panacea's house. Our also very nerdy friend Harry said she'd join in, and we just ignored everyone else because they were too busy pretending they were too cool for snowball fights.
I wore my Moon Boots and set out to wait for the 54 (that's a bus, by the way). Surprisingly enough, it got there within a song time (around four minutes, unless it's Stairway to Heaven) and I eventually got chez Panacea.
Soon, we were out on the street, in a surreally quiet Milan, throwing snowballs at each other. My two evil friends ganged up on me too many times for my liking, and my poor ears were targeted mercilessly. Alas, tiredness soon set in, and we decided to engage in a more sedentary occupation: snowman building.
The result of an hour's toil and trouble was Frosty.

Frosty is a cool snowman with a green pepper for a nose, twig pieces for eyes, and a mohican. He also happens to be lopsided, although that was entirely unintentional. Those metal pole thingies, by the way, are slightly less than a metre in length, so you can imagine how big an enterprise the building of Frosty was.
The name Frosty is, of course, an original creation. No other snowmen are called Frosty. None at all.
Frosty enjoyed Milan, but unfortunately, Milan did not enjoy Frosty. When his creators where there to watch over him, many people stopped and stared, congratulating him for being so handsome. A really cute guy even took a photo of Frosty! Sadly, the moment we left him alone to face the world, some faceless and nameless vandals made sure to destroy the poor thing. A mere two hours after his birth, Frosty was decapitated, and resembled a small volcano rather than an ice sculpture.
I suppose all good things must come to an end.
May you rest in peace, Frosty!

Incindentally, what is the plural of snowman? Is it snowmen or snowmans?

Weird weather


Oh, look! A post!

I've finally taken advantage of the wonders of the internet, and created a blog. This being the first post, I really don't know what I'm doing, so please bear with my random ramblings (alliteration) for now.
Oh, yes, this might eventually get interesting.
Probably not now, though.
I also happen to be an endless procrastinator, so whenever I update, you owe it to my ever-nagging friend Panacea (and that's obviously not her real name).
On a side note, it is snowing here. But more on that, and on a snowman named Frosty, on my next post. Aren't you just dying of excitement?